The heroic Poles during WWII who should not be forgotten

In condemning the anti-Semitic march on Polish Independence Day in Kalisz, we should not forget the Poles who saved Jewish lives. Op-ed.

Mordecai Paldiel ,

Yad Vashem
Yad Vashem
Flash 90

Background: Jews the world over were appalled at the anti-Semitic march in Kalisz on Polish National Independence Day recently, especially since Poland was where the Nazis built their most bestial death and work camps, Poles massacred the Jews of Jedwabna in 1941, looted dead bodies outside work camps, took over Jewish homes, and carried out a pogrom in Kielce after the war was over. Attempts by the Polish government to show that Poland had turned over a new leaf and to build a positive relationship with Israel were progressing, and then the Polish parliament passed a law negatively affecting restitution rights followed several months later by the march - which, however, was condemned by Poland's Catholic church, many government officials and the media.(Arutz Sheva)

After the fall of Poland at the start of World War II, some Polish diplomatic offices in other countries remained open. In Bern, Switzerland, ambassador Aleksander Ładoś and his two principal aides, Stefan Ryniewicz and Konstanty Rokicki undertook a major rescue effort of Polish Jews.
It began when dozens of Paraguayan documents were obtained from Rudolf Hügli, the Paraguayan consul in Bern, in which the names of Polish Jews were entered and properly sealed as supposedly Paraguayan nationals, that enabled some of them, living in Polish lands under Soviet occupation, to escape to Japan. There, the Polish legation issued them proper Polish passports with which they proceeded to other destinations.

This led to a greater effort of help to Jews; to those mostly in Poland, but also in other German occupied countries, to avoid deportation to the death camps, by issuing them false Latin American, but mostly Paraguayan, passports. Such passport holders were kept by the Germans in special camps under the policy of hostage exchange which the Nazi regime hoped to accomplish with Germans living in various Latin American countries, for their return to Germany.

This work, initiated by the Polish legation, was coordinated with two main Jewish rescue activists, both stationed in Switzerland – Abraham Silberschein, head of a subsidiary of the World Jewish Congress dealing with rescue, and Rabbo Chaim Israel Eiss, of the Orthodox Agudat Israel movement. Similarly, also with Yitzhak and Recha Sternbuch, who represented the New York-based rescue committee, known as Vaad Hatzalah. Julius Kühl, the Jewish employee in the Polish legation, also played a significant role in this false passports scheme.

The converting of Polish citizens into Paraguayan ones was done secretly, and without the knowledge of the Paraguayan government. It was also done without prior approval of the Polish government-in-exile in London, although it consented to it when it learned of the initiative that Ładoś had taken of this highly unorthodox diplomatic action, that risked complicating relations between Poland and the Latin American countries.

In his statement before the Swiss police, Silberschein emphasized that his work was done “in full cooperation with the Polish diplomatic authorities in Switzerland.” Juliusz Kühl, too, under investigation by the Swiss police, stated that the passports operation “was fully carried out with the knowledge of our envoy, Herr Minister Alexander Lados.”

When Lados learned that the Germans were questioning the validity of the Latin American passports in possession of mostly Polish Jews, who were temporarily held by the Germans in the Vittel camp, in occupied France – on December 19, 1943, he dispatched an urgent message to Tadeusz Romer, the Polish Foreign Minister, in London, pleading for intervention with the Latin American legations in Berlin to recognize these passports, since they were “issued solely for humanitarian purposes in order to save people from certain death … The matter is very urgent.” Lados followed this up with additional pleas in the next months, including to the head of the International Red Cross, in Geneva.

Another important mechanism through which the Polish legation in Bern was of immense help to Jews was the use of its special radio station to transmit secret messages on the situation of Jews in German-occupied countries. This, too, was in violation of the Swiss policy of neutrality in the current war. Isaac Lewin, of the Jewish Agudat Israel organization, who was the recipient of these messages via the Polish consulate in New York, stated after the war, that Ładoś merited to be inscribed “in gold letters in the book which records for posterity the attempts at helping the unfortunate victims of Nazism.”

On January 21, 1944, H.A. Goodman, head of Agudat Israel in London, wrote to K. Kraczkiewicz, of the Polish Foreign Office, of “the most helpful attitude adopted by our Minister in Berne, Dr. Ładoś; that “without his assistance many of the activities which we have undertaken could not have been fulfilled.” Julius Kühl, in his post-war memoirs praised Ładoś as “a real Righteous Among the Nations,” and “a real humanitarian.” That he did his utmost to be of service, by “using all his influence in the Swiss diplomatic service as well as with the Polish government-in-exile.”

On October 13, 1943, Swiss Foreign Minister, Marcel Pilet-Golaz, summoned Aleksander Ładoś to explain the Latin American false passports scheme. As recorded by the Swiss foreign minister, “I point out to him [that] we found that members of the embassy and consular staff had conducted activity that was beyond the scope of their competence and duties…. That is why we intervened.” To this, Ładoś responded in anger that his government will not accept the Swiss protest, since it was strictly a humanitarian action. Also, there was no intention of the false passport holders to head to these countries, but the intention was simply to avoid their deportation to the death camps.

There are no exact figures how many Jews benefitted from the Latin American passports scheme with the aid of the Swiss legation in Bern but, by all accounts, the figure runs into the thousands. In a major study, Jakub Kumoch, former Polish ambassador in Switzerland, he has so far identified 3,262 names, of which an estimated 796 survived. However, when one takes into account that family members were also included in many of the passports, the total beneficiary figure may run much higher, perhaps as many as 8,000, of which between 2 to 3,000 may have survived. Work on this tabulation is still continuing.

Polish diplomats Ładoś, Ryniewicz and Rokicki, risked being expelled from Switzerland and the Polish legation closed. The record shows that the Swiss authorities seriously considered the taking of punitive measures, but stopped short of this due to the changing military situation in favor of the Allies, to which the Polish government-in-exile also belonged.

This is probably the only recorded story to emerge from the Holocaust of a close and intimate collaboration between Polish diplomats (mainly in Switzerland, but also in other countries) and Jewish rescue activists that led to a major effort to rescue thousands of Jews, and succeeded in saving certainly many hundreds, and perhaps even more.

The major rescuers in this story, headed by Aleksander Ładoś, need to be acknowledged, praised, and made universally known. Yad Vashem, in Jerusalem has so far awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations to Konstanty Rokicki. Hopefully, Aleksander Ładoś (the man mostly responsible for this vast rescue operation) and Stefan Ryniewicz will soon also be added to this roll of honor.

Mordecai Paldiel is a former director at the Yad-Vashem Institute in Jerusalem. The unit he led between 1984 and 2007 awarded the title Righteous Among the Nations to tens of thousands of people around the world. Author of numerous books on the Shoah. University lecturer in the United States.

This article was published in the monthly Wszystko Co Najważniejsze (Poland) as part of a historical education project with the Institute of National Remembrance and Narodowy Bank Polski (Polish Central Bank).



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